The Compassion of the Swans

I’m a big animal lover and have been as long as I can remember, but I always seem to have had a special connection with birds.

Even when I was a youngster, I was always finding wounded birds that I would bring home and nurse back to health. I’ve rescued sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and wild ducks, just to name a few species.

I’m a big animal lover and have been as long as I can remember, but I always seem to have had a special connection with birds. Even when I was a youngster, I was always finding wounded birds that I would bring home and nurse back to health. I’ve rescued sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and wild ducks, just to name a few species.

A Pelican in Trouble

One of my most memorable rescues was a huge pelican that I came upon while vacationing in Panama City, Florida.

The poor creature had half a dozen fish hooks in him, and had become so tangled up in fishing lines, it couldn’t fly and could barely tread water. It was in pretty bad shape, and obviously weak from hunger, because it couldn’t fish. Since it was just off a jetty, I dove in and took it in my arms. The pelican didn’t resist; it was either too weak, or perhaps it sensed my good intent.

It was a big bird, and completely filled my arms. One of the things I most remember was how warm its great body felt next to mine.When I got the bird ashore, I began working to untangle it. Some curious people came over, and I was able to borrow a knife to cut the nylon strands. A fisherman had some wire snips, and I was able to cut off and remove all the embedded hooks, too. Through all of this, the bird was quiet, as if it knew it was being helped.

Metta—Loving-kindness Meditation for a Pelican

As the curious left, I just held the great bird in my arms and did metta for it. It’s been years now since this incident, so I don’t remember the exact words I used in my meditation. But as in prayer, it’s the thoughts and feelings that are important, not so much the form they take. My loving mental embrace of the bird went something like this:

Dear bird! May you not be afraid. May you feel safe, may you feel peace. May you feel loved and supported in your being and your life. Beloved being, beautiful bird, may your dear body be healed and strengthened. May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. May you be happy and well. May this help I’m giving you be an open door to freedom. May your wounds heal quickly. May you gain your strength quickly. May you have a good and long life, beloved pelican, my friend, my winged brother.

For about 10 minutes, we just sat their together and I embraced the bird with all my heart, with as limitless and unconditional love and compassion as was within me. As I meditated in advocacy for the bird’s well-being, I could feel the bird relax.

Finally, it turned its head and looked at me with a look I’ll never forget—a long steady gaze that somehow seemed to speak to some deep connection, beyond all concepts of man and bird. I sensed the bird’s gratitude. And then, I knew, somehow, it would be OK, and I took it back to the water’s edge.

The big bird took to the water with what seemed to me to be great joy. It swam around strongly, but didn’t move away from where I stood. The pelican paddled back close to me and gave one last long look. Then it paddled off to join some mates. My heart soared when, after some more rest, it took to the air and flew down the coast. My metta went with it: “Dear Great Bird! May your wounds heal. May your needs be meet. May you be safe from hooks and harm. May you have a good life. May we someday meet again.”

Compassion isn’t limited to humans

Compassion is not limited to us humans. Animals are capable of surprising altruism and compassionate actions. Let me share with you one of my favorite stories of animal compassion. I came across it some years ago, and it was so remarkable, I did some investigation at the time to verify its accuracy, contacting the author. It is a true story. I originally traced the authorship back to a site called animalvoices.com, but that’s no longer a valid link. I discovered that the story has moved to a wonderful site called at http://www.all-creatures.org/.

So here it is, a true wildlife story in which loving-kindness and altruism break through the bonds of conditionality and reveal the possibilities of love in all creatures. The original title is “Goose and Swans,” but I’ll always think of it as:

The Compassion of the Swans

Where we live, on the Eastern shore of Maryland, the gentle waters run in and out like fingers slimming at the tips. They curl into the smaller creeks and coves like tender palms.

The Canadian geese know this place, as do the white swans and the ducks who ride an inch above the waves of Chesapeake Bay as they skim their way into harbor. In the autumn, by the thousands, they come home for the winter. The swans move toward the shores in a stately glide, their tall heads proud and unafraid. They lower their long necks deep into the water, where their strong beaks dig through the river bottoms for food. And there is, between the arrogant swans and the prolific geese, an indifference, almost a disdain.

Once or twice each year, snow and sleet move into the area. When this happens, if the river is at its narrowest, or the creek shallow, there is a freeze which hardens the water to ice. It was on such a morning, near Osford, Maryland, that a friend of mine set the breakfast table beside the huge window, which overlooked the Tred Avon River. Across the river, beyond the dock, the snow laced the rim of the shore in white. For a moment she stood quietly, looking at what the night’s storm had painted.

Frozen in the Ice

Suddenly she leaned forward and peered close to the frosted window. “It really is,” she cried out loud, “there is a goose out there.” She reached to the bookcase and pulled out a pair of binoculars. Into their sights came the figure of a large Canadian goose, very still, its wings folded tight to its sides, its feet frozen to the ice.

Then from the dark skies, she saw a line of swans. They moved in their own singular formation, graceful, intrepid, and free. They crossed from the west of the broad creek high above the house, moving steadily to the east. As my friend watched, the leader swung to the right, then the white string of birds became a white circle. It floated from the top of the sky downward. At last, as easy as feathers coming to earth, the circle landed on the ice. My friend was on her feet now, with one unbelieving hand against her mouth. As the swans surrounded the frozen goose, she feared what life he still had might be pecked out by those great swan bills.

Instead, amazingly instead, those bills began to work on the ice. The long necks were lifted and curved down, again and again, it went on for a long time. At last, the goose was rimmed by a narrow margin of ice instead of the entire creek. The swans rose again, following the leader, and hovered in that circle, awaiting the results of their labors. The goose’s head lifted. Its body pulled. Then the goose was free and standing on the ice. He was moving his big webbed feet slowly. And the swans stood in the air watching.

“I cannot fly!”

Then, as if he had cried, “I cannot fly,” four of the swans came down around him. Their powerful beaks scraped the goose’s wings from top to bottom, scuttled under its wings and rode up its body, chipping off and melting the ice held in the feathers. Slowly, as if testing, the goose spread its wings as far as they would go, brought them together, accordion-like, and spread again. When at last the wings reached their fullest, the four swans took off and joined the hovering group. They resumed their eastward journey, in perfect formation, to their secret destination.

Behind fullest, the four swans took off and joined the hovering group. They resumed their eastward journey, in perfect formation, to their secret destination.

Behind them, rising with incredible speed and joy, the goose moved into the sky. He followed them, flapping double time, until he caught up, until he joined the last end of the line, like a small child at the end of a crack-the-whip of older boys. My friend watched them until they disappeared over the tips of the farthest trees. Only then, in the dusk, which was suddenly deep, did she realize that tears were running down her cheeks and had been for how long she didn’t know.

This is a true story. It happened. I do not try to interpret it. I just think of it in the bad moments, and from it comes only one hopeful question: “If so for birds, why not for man?

Goose and Swans
by Charlotte Edwards

http://www.all-creatures.org/

♥♥♥

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

11 Responses to “The Compassion of the Swans”

  1. Yes–Cleo (the pigeon) is amazing. She responds to affection and love like a sponge to water (and she makes her displeasure very much known if she hasn’t had enough, or if I’ve been away!)

    I woke up a little anxious and out-of-sorts early this morning (the product of nothing but some meaningless dreams), and one of the first things I thought about was this post–both the swans, and what it would have felt like to hold the pelican in your arms. It helped bring me back to where I was supposed to be.

    Nancy
    http://saradode.wordpress.com

    • Cleo! Love the name, and she sounds adorable. I too have found that pigeons can be amazingly sweet and affectionate.

      So glad my post helped this morning. Hearing how it helped you, helped me, and I once again felt that warm pelican body, hugged in my heart.

      Steve

  2. P.S. And the DO seem to know intuitively if someone means to help them! They seem to look you in the eyes to size you up, and know right away.

    • Hey Nancy! “…something in the WordPress water, perhaps?” Must be! It’s interesting how these things work out.

      You’re most welcome. I’m so interested to hear that you have a special connection with birds, too. (I’ve wondered about that former life as a bird idea, too!)

      My gosh, what a bird sanctuary you have, and what a big heart! I know how much work it is to take care of numbers of birds, especially injured ones. That must be one special pigeon, though, I must say that pigeons are remarkably resilient birds.

      I agree. My experience has been that most animals can sense when you are trying to help them, even ones that might be dangerous or extremely adverse to being near a human.

      Warm metta to all your feathered (and other) friends,
      Steve

  3. What was that about “synchronicity,” Steve? Today I wrote about owls, Michael wrote about a falcon, and you wrote about pelicans, geese, and swans…Something in the WordPress water, perhaps?

    Thanks for this; like you, I have a special connection with birds, and I’ve always assumed that I must have been a bird in at least one former life! I have 10 birds at home, several of them rescued or adopted from shelters. One is a pigeon with two paralyzed legs and a broken wing. I found her on the street 7 1/2 years ago. She seems to love living…

    Nancy

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